What Boys and Girls Are Made Of

Career Girls and In the Company of Men.

Career Girls
Directed by Mike Leigh
October Films

In the Company of Men
Directed by Neil LaBute
Sony Pictures Classics

Going to work for Mike Leigh is not just a job, it’s a histrionic quest. You can picture his actors clearing their calendars for the next six months, ritually cleansing themselves, and kissing their spouses and children goodbye. Renowned for his means as much as his ends, the director sends his performers out into the world to unearth data about their characters, then leads them through weeks of improvisation and scene-building. Actors, God love them, adore this. They’re not the most systematic or penetrating thinkers, but they come back with nuggets of gold. They also tend to truck in loads of dung in the form of earnest psychobabble. I suppose when you compel actors to draw on their own resources, you have to take the banal with the startling. And there is something to startle you in Leigh’s crooked, bittersweet little comedy Career Girls. It’s called Katrin Cartlidge, and every director should have one–and build an altar to it.

You possibly saw Cartlidge in supporting roles in Naked and Breaking the Waves. You haven’t seen her in full gale force. As Hannah, who grows from spiky prole to uneasy denizen of the middle class, she’s the sort of woman who’s underrepresented in movies: smart and aggressive and desperately unhappy about the random injustices of her upbringing. Tall and sharp-featured, she’s a fount of caustic one-liners, and her stabbing wit makes her look more angular yet. Hannah drives people away with her querulous expressions, her verbal parries, her cock-of-the-walk mannerisms. The miracle of the performance is that the quips seem double-edged, at once a glorious shield and a grim barrier to contact with other human beings. She can’t tamp her anger or her need to be ever in control; she’s too superbly defended.

Leigh, mindful of symmetry, has paired her with Annie (Lynda Steadman), a woman with no apparent defenses at all. A quivering pile of flesh attired in smart “career girl” fashions, Annie travels to London by train to visit Hannah, her former college roommate, whom she has not seen in years. I report all this matter-of-factly; but in the film it takes a while to determine just what their relationship is or was. The two are guarded with each other, inexpert in their banter, halting in their rhythms. Then Leigh launches the first of many flashbacks to their college days–on bluish film stock, with a shaky camera–and the glimpse of the past fills in the empty spaces in the present. It also adds another layer of confusion: The performances are so extreme and the milieu so scuzzy you might think they’re not in college but a rehab clinic for junkies. It takes a while to get oriented in Leigh’s movies, which, for all their social-realist trappings, frequently explode into caricature and high-theatrical artifice. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Career Girls, unlike the increasingly dreary Secrets & Lies, ups the fun quotient and leaves the moral sorting-out to the audience.

Steadman, it must be said, overdoes the jiggle-headed twitch; in college, she looks like a Star Trek android whose circuits keep misfiring. But she is awfully cute. As Leigh skips back and forth between past and present, he spotlights the contrast between the well-coiffed woman and strung-out teen-ager; gradually, the two incarnations merge. Annie and Hannah come to seem like little girls dressed up, their old emotions there but determinedly buried. And as the women become more comfortable with each other, opening themselves up to their memories and feelings, the meter of the film shifts from jerky to expansive.

L eigh must provide a narrative, so a third of the way into the picture, Hannah announces that she has made a series of appointments with real-estate agents to see deluxe apartments; the girls can pretend to be swells and see how the haute bourgeoisie live. In a yuppie high-rise, a “swinger” (Andy Serkis) puts the moves on them, and is so hilariously shameless that he transcends the cliché. Simultaneously, in the past, we meet the girls’ roommate, Ricky (Mark Benton), who is very, very fat and is also a mass of tics and twitches. “Uh em uhm eh,” he begins, in an effort to tell Annie that he loves her, “ah-I f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fancy you. Uh em uhm eh ah-I l-l-l-l-l-oov you.” Neither attempt at seduction is especially appealing, and neither man takes rejection well. A third suitor, Adrian (Joe Tucker), does better with both girls. In flashback, he has his way with one (“When I fook someone, they stay fooked”) and sends the other into a decadelong swoon; in the present, he appears as a slick, enigmatic real-estate agent who refuses to acknowledge his previous persona. Adrian is smarmily insulated from his past; Ricky, whom Annie and Hannah stumble on in the film’s climactic scene, has let his past eat him alive.

Because of how organically Leigh works, his films can seem both shapeless and too pat. In some ways they don’t gel, in others they harden into cement. The heroines of Career Girls crack jokes about the people turning up from their past as if on cue: What are the chances of that?! The chances of that are good indeed if you’re a character in a movie, so don’t play postmodern games. Over Chinese food, the women lay out their points of view too neatly, psychoanalyzing the life out of the scene. And the picture’s final encounter, with a grotesquely addled Ricky, feels exploitative. Ricky might represent how Hannah and Annie could have turned out if they’d let go, if they hadn’t overcome their bitterness or helplessness to scale the socioeconomic ladder. But he seems emblematic of little besides spasticity and mental retardation.

That said, Career Girls is hard not to treasure. I wasn’t crying at the end, the way some in the audience were, but I wasn’t eager for the credits to roll. Leigh gives his actors the space they need to establish a character’s rhythms, and the results are like a richer kind of oxygen. I suspect he works the way he does–and his films are such a mishmash–because his world view is happily compromised. A Marxist, he can’t suppress his sympathy for those who look for meaning in the material world, in backyard barbecues and cars and fax machines. Class might be central, but it isn’t destiny. And yuppies are too ripe for satire to be branded as evil. The only thing that’s certain is that when actors are given their heads, they have a whale of a time, and the audience does too. The rest is open-ended.

W hich is the opposite in every way of In the Company of Men, a dazzling, repellent exercise in which the case against men is closed before it’s opened. A handsome junior executive, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), proposes to a nerdy superior, Howard (Matt Malloy), that as a means of exacting revenge on all the females who’ve ever hurt them, they both pursue and then dump the same woman–for the fun of it. So there’s no chance you’ll think that the film is genuinely misogynist, the writer-director, Neil LaBute, makes the object of their scheme not a trashy bitch but a shy, good, hauntingly lovely woman (Christine, played by Stacy Edwards) who also happens to be deaf. The boys might as well be torturing a puppy.

The film, which has been widely acclaimed, is immaculately of a piece, even if that piece is Carnal Knowledge by way of David Mamet. Chad speaks in rat-tat-tat clichés, and has no trouble smooth-talking the girl into bed. Meanwhile, he does what he can to stir up paranoia in his “buddy.” As in Career Girls, scenes are reduced to a single shot, a single tableau, but LaBute’s compositions are rigid and airless: they call attention to their own wit, and to the fact that the characters’ destinies are fixed. As it turns out, In the Company of Men is only tangentially about woman-hating; it’s actually about male corporate culture, in which the players find it endlessly exciting to screw one another. But that won’t stop some women from fearing that this, at bottom, is what all guys are like.

L ook, ladies: One of these men is a sociopath and the other, a spineless dweeb. Most men don’t have the sophistication to hurt women for sport. They do it because they’re selfish creeps. And the angel at the center of the movie is hardly representative, either. (Katrin Cartlidge’s Hannah could make quick work of both these losers.) Of course, there is a certain kind of male who might enjoy In the Company of Men: Someone who likes to watch people victimized while feeling morally superior to the victimizers. Friends of mine, especially women, found sitting through the film akin to being smeared with excrement. It worries me that before I thought too hard about it, I was having a pretty good time.

The perfect woman (51 seconds):
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Hannah’s cardinal trait (48 seconds):
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The bleepin’ boys’ club (69 seconds):
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“You feel this could be a relationship, right?” Chad (Eckhart) dines Christine (Edwards) (59 seconds):
Sound11 - CompanyMen2.avi or Sound12 -; download time, 3.50 minutes at 56K Sound04 - movie-CompanyOfMen02.asf for sound only